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Monday, July 23, 2012

Sonmarg (Kashmir)

Memories of Sonmarg bring shivers into my spines. I am just recapitulating the enthusiasm we had while proceeding to this place which withered away eventually. That could have been one of the most enjoyable trips but we underwent extreme suffering due to our own faults and lack of proper guidance. Sonmarg which means 'Meadow of Gold' lies some 87 kilometres North East of Srinagar on the highway leading to Leh in Laddakh (topmost area of India). If one continues the journey on that highway for another  9 kilometres, one would reach Joji La (Pass) which is a vital link between Srinagar and Leh. Since we were not heading towards Leh, we stopped at Sonmarg. An important glacier known as Machoi is approachable from here at a distance of 8 kilometres towards the right. The melting ice of the glacier forms a river known as Sindhu which flows for 108 kilometres and becomes a tributary of the river Jhelam. On the way to Sonmarg this river flows parallel to the highway (NH 1D) most of the time and affords a beautiful view against the backdrop of the mountain ranges. The flowing waters, greenery created by the Pine trees and other vegetation makes the drive enjoyable. We were happy for we thought we were seeing the famous river Indus (called Sindhu in India) but we were mistaken. The river Indus has its origin in Tibet and passing through Laddakh it flows through Pakistan.

On 8th June 2012 we had our breakfast in the morning at Srinagar and could reach Sonmarg by Noon. There were several temporary shops on the left providing overcoats, hand gloves, woollen caps, gum boots etc. on a rental basis. The ground in front had wet mud all around and was slushy, a place for all the ponies waiting for customers. The shops there arrange for everything you need, including ponies.  The economic principle of demand and supply becomes operational when it comes to determination of  per head charges. It is obvious that it varies from time to time.

It was drizzling when we reached there but soon the sky was clear and the weather looked inviting. We geared ourselves putting on the overcoats and other things and finally were on the horse back for the 8 kilometre ride. The caravan proceeded towards the glacier scaling the steep ups. While we were mid way, it started raining. We were wearing woollen overcoats which got soaked in rain water and created discomfort. By the time we were at the foot of the glacier, we were completely drenched and shivering because of extreme cold. All of us were riding a horse/pony for the first time in life. Fortunately at the point we got down, there were numerous temporary sheds where hot tea was available. There was a fire place where we could get some warmth. But that was  of no avail because the moment we got out it was a back to square one situation.

The glacier stood before us and some how we prepared ourselves for the climb. You are pulled up on a sledge which is a wooden plank by the people rendering this service. Their charges are also negotiable. There are some imaginary points across the glacier viz, 6, 12, 24 and so on. One could choose any one of them and the farther you wish to be carried, you need to pay more. We settled for a point described as 24. The journey upwards over the sledge was cumbersome as you need to balance yourself. I fell down twice. We were still shivering and the height at 13500 feet had a telling effect. Abruptly, even before we could reach the so called point 6, the man pulling the sledge asked us to get down and cover the steep stretch by foot. We did the short trek but then got exhausted. We were unable to breathe properly. There was no strength left to go any further. We settled ourselves on the snow unable to make any movements. There were cries in the air. A child aged 9 or 10 was weeping profusely. We then decided to return back. Even on our way back we got thrown out of the sledge because of the steep slide.

Ready to go back
We came back to have another round of hot tea and getting some warmth at the fireplace of the tea shops. Looking back at the glacier we realized the beauty of the place but failed to appreciate it to the extent it deserved because of fatigue, physical as also mental. Now we were looking for our horses/ponies and they got located soon. While returning from the glacier, over the horse back, we were going down and at many places it was very steep. It seemed to be a very tiring exercise to remain at 90 degrees and balancing ourselves while the horse was  manoeuvring  through very narrow passages circumventing large boulders, stones and cavities. Finally we reached the place where our vehicles were parked.

Our driver immediately came to our rescue. He pulled out our gum boots and socks and to our horror we found ice pieces coming out along with water. Thereafter we removed the drenched overcoat and other things which were sent back to the shop owner. We also removed our shirts and pants and  got seated inside our vehicles. The heater was turned on and we were feeling better after 10/15 minutes.

We had observed that there was a good road going to the glacier from Sonmarg but only the local vehicles (other than taxies) were permitted. Probably this practice is in vogue so as to enable the local horse/pony keepers to make a living.

The greatest blunder we committed was by not insisting for rain coats. The weather conditions in high altitudes are not predictable. But then we were provided with woollens only which got drenched and created all the problems.

While returning to Srinagar, we stopped at a wayside restaurant and had our late but hot lunch. The Alu Parathas (bread with potatoes) was heavenly.
Nevertheless it was an experience more akin to an adventure.